5 Ways to Navigate Generational Conflict at Work

Generational conflict in the workplace is distracting and it limits what we're able to achieve collectively. Modern Mentor shares her action plan for pushing through this conflict and harnessing the power of a multigenerational workforce.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #661
The Quick And Dirty

Overcoming generational conflict in the workplace can be achieved with these five steps:

  1. Acknowledge our different histories
  2. Create connections
  3. Leverage differences strategically
  4. Flex to respect people's needs
  5. Find a reciprocal mentor

Raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself saying, thinking, or even being the victim of one of the following:

  • Boomers are so old-school! They’re out of touch, they’re stuck in old ways, and technology mystifies them.
  • Gen X-ers are so cynical! They don’t do collaboration and they’re hard to work with.
  • Millennials are entitled! They grew up winning participation trophies and they need too much feedback and validation.

Seriously, raise your hand. I can’t see you.

The truth is, these and many other stereotypes exist out there. Sometimes, they’re harmless—just silly assumptions we carry through our days. But they can also be destructive. These stereotypes can inhibit trust and teamwork and ignite conflict, limiting what we’re all able to achieve professionally. So let’s talk about how the different generations can play better together in the professional sandbox. Regardless of your birth year, you have a role to play.

1. Acknowledge our different histories

To the extent that generational stereotypes hold water, there may be reasons why. In broad strokes, Baby Boomers were raised by survivors of the Great Depression—parents who may have valued scrimping, saving, and doing things by the book. Gen X was raised by two-income parents experiencing high rates of divorce. They were the latch-key generation, coming home from school to an empty house. So teamwork may not be the thing that comes naturally. And Millennials have spent most of their lives with modern-day devices in hand—devices that deliver regular feedback and instant gratification. So those needs may be hard-wired.

The first step to overcoming generational differences is appreciating why they exist. Give history its space—no good or bad. Just recognize reality for what it is. Understanding why someone may behave the way they do can give us a little more patience and willingness to let it be.

2. Create connections

Problematic though they may be, stereotypes have emerged for a reason. They help our brains quickly make sense (often erroneously) of what we don’t understand. According to this Nature article, “…since the 1960s, cognitive researchers… have argued that stereotyping is a general feature of human social categorization.”

We stereotype in the absence of information. And we overcome this by getting better information. And getting information about people—actual people and not categories of them—is achieved by making connections. So get intentional and be proactive in making connections with colleagues of different generations. Reach out to people one-on-one and grab a coffee. Expand your social media feed so you’re following a diversity of perspectives across generations. Or start a book club or a discussion group focusing on titles or topics with broad appeal to attract a generationally diverse crowd.

Getting to know people and creating connections renders stereotypes useless. Your brain doesn’t need them anymore. So get connecting.

3. Leverage differences strategically

Many of us have built our networks of trusted advisors—the same people we tend to tap time and again. Probably because they’re likely to agree with us! When you’re on the hunt for a collaborator or just someone with an opinion, step outside your comfort zone and tap someone new for a fresh perspective. Take a chance on reaching out to a colleague of a different generation and invite them to push or challenge your thinking in a new way.

Colleagues older than you have more wisdom, experience, and context. They’ve watched product and client trends come and go, and this insight could help shape your future decisions. Colleagues younger than you are more likely to understand technology and current trends, and to have a finger on the pulse of what a younger generation of customers wants to see.

The goal is not to throw out your idea and replace it with a different one. The goal is to combine insights from across generations to deliver the most robust outcome. What’s something you’ve been sitting with that needs a strategic push or challenge? Reach out to someone of a different generation and get their take.

4. Flex to respect people’s needs.

Appreciating the value others bring is important. But so too is respecting their needs and values. Colleagues in different generations—or life stages—may be experiencing different realities that influence the need for boundaries, values, connection, and more.

Some colleagues, for example, are in the thick of raising children, caring for aging parents, or both. These colleagues may need stronger boundaries and more flexibility around when and where they work. They may prefer asynchronous communication (i.e., a text or email versus a Zoom or call so they can respond when time permits). They may also be resistant to after-hours team-building events as they’re challenged to juggle it all. Other colleagues may be young and single and have a greater need to connect, chat, and build meaningful friendships at work. Others may be nearing retirement and are focused on building their legacy, having less interest in the nitty-gritty details of work.

People all around us are in different stages of life. The more you consider and respect what they need and flex your style to compromise, the greater engagement you’ll get. And this goes in both directions! You should expect the same consideration and compromise from your colleagues as well. Meeting people where they are will help turn up the dial on the value they’re able to deliver.

5. Find a reciprocal mentor.

As you may have guessed, I’m a fan of the mentor. 

In a traditional mentorship, the mentor supports the mentee on a journey—whether it’s tackling a challenge, navigating sticky career situations, or preparing for a promotion. In a reciprocal mentorship, each party is both a mentor and a mentee, and the support moves in both directions.

I’ve seen this work well in multigenerational workforces. A senior executive might count on a young colleague to help her tweak her communication style and messaging, to help her engage in social justice activism, and to move the needle on inclusion and belonging. The junior team member might seek advice on growing their executive presence, on preparing to interview for a more senior role, or managing complex projects in a bureaucratic culture.

What’s top of mind for you right now? Is there someone older or younger who might play a role in supporting you through it? And what might you offer them in exchange?

I hope you’re feeling inspired to do some connecting. Let me know what you learn along the way! Drop me an email at modernmentor@quickanddirtytips.com, or call the Modern Mentor listener line at 201-632-5656.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.